Life for the renegade off-roader could not be better. Not that we’re outlaws, but since the ’70s when you could ride in just about every open lot in the county on equipment with a shade more sophistication than a lawn mower, the “cannots” have been pushing, shoving and maneuvering nearly any sport that’s not of the stick-and-ball type onto the moon. So, for the dirt biker, it’s hit the track or pack it up and hightail it out to a reasonable riding zone. For SoCal pilots, this usually means a 200-mile-plus round trip. This is why serious off-roaders pleaded with the manufacturers to give them a true plated dirt bike so that they could put together loops, tying together trails, fire roads and pavement. Until KTM gave us the EXC model, we were forced to ride a heavy pile that was 95 percent street, or attempt to get plates from the DMV for our dirt bikes. Now we have a true dirt machine tattooed with just enough street necessities to warrant a plate.
But there have been hurdles. The early machines were frightfully lean and bottled up at the exhaust, then fit with super-tall gearing so that they passed the necessary guidelines for pavement-legal machines. The good news is that the evolution from the carbureted 530 to the fuel-injected 500, the ability to constantly fine-tune the mapping to keep some usable power and better exhaust technology, has allowed the new 500EXC to be the closest machine yet to a fully legal dirt bike.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS
The chassis and suspension on the KTM 500EXC are taken directly from the off-road XC-W line. The frame is chromoly and it’s orange—we love it! This is probably the last time we’ll see this version, though, as it’s likely that the ’17 model will get fit with the newer SX-F-styled engine and chassis. The chassis is slim, uses a PDS single shock with no linkage, and mates to a WP open-bath fork, as opposed to the 4CS systems on the SX-F/XC-F and Huskys. The fork guards are new and don’t wrap all the way around the tubes; we’re not sure if we like this, since the wraparound design helped ward off nicks from rocks getting flipped into the fork and front tire. The brochure says that it’s now easier to clean the lower fork area. The footpegs are wide. The leg-clamp zone is narrow. The 2.2-gallon tank seems tiny yet, due to the fuel injection, meters fuel like a miser and is good for 70–75 miles of hard off-road riding. KTM has reduced the front axle size from 26mm to 22mm for two reasons: weight and better feel due to less rigidity. The fork offset is 2mm farther back in the axle clamp, and the triple-clamp offset has been changed from 20mm to 22mm. The trail is unchanged. The overall goal of the changes was to help front-wheel traction.
Other news is the addition of a plastic skid plate. Finally! The handlebars are Neken Bulge units fit with Renthal grips. The brakes are Brembo. The wheels are CNC-machined hubs, anodized-black Giant rims and black spokes with aluminum nipples, while the tires are DOT-legal Metzeler Six Days tires. It comes fit with a beefy O-ring chain, and the chainguide is a very durable Acerbis plastic unit.
The engine remains a 510cc, with a cylinder head that is equipped with a single-overhead camshaft with two titanium intake valves and two steel exhaust valves. It has low friction for improved performance, as well as low engine-braking action. The transmission is a six-speed. The clutch is the DDS unit (Damped Diaphragm Steel). It is machined from high-tensile steel in one solid piece together with the primary drive gear. This process promotes reliability, and the diaphragm spring makes it possible to implement an additional rubber damping system inside the clutch hub, ensuring reliability for the transmission and excellent traction. Finally, the hydraulic clutch mechanism by Brembo, in conjunction with the diaphragm spring, provides very light clutch operation. A 42mm Keihin throttle body finds its way onto both the XC-W and EXC lineups. It differs from the SX-F throttle body, which is more compact. An oil-cooled, 196-watt AC alternator provides energy for the fuel injection, lighting and other electrical loads. The final gearing (via the new orange rear sprocket) is 14/45.
HERE’S WHAT WE LIKED, TOSSED IN WITH A COUPLE OF GROANS
Starting is wickedly simple, as the KTM has a strong starter motor and very dialed-in mapping. It comes with a kick-start lever, though in all the hundreds of hours we’ve put on fuel-injected 500s, we’ve never needed it. Getting to the idle knob is a nightmare, as it’s hidden by hoses and is tucked well under the tank on the left side. Warm it up and set the idle in good light, since it is hard to locate. The bike is quiet—almost frighteningly so. The end cap looks like it has pinholes to evacuate the exhaust. Still, the power is instant, smooth and very bottom-to-mid-oriented, although there is a slightly lean feel and the occasional pop on deceleration. Honestly, the power feels light, smooth and strong enough…if you change the super-tall gearing.
The 14-45 gearing is very street-worthy but not trail-friendly. The minimal change is go to a 48-tooth rear sprocket, which will allow you to use the stock chain, making trail riding much easier, since first gear is actually usable. It does suck the wheelbase in, bringing the chain adjustment to the front of the swingarm. Ideally, it’s always a good idea to get the rear wheel either in the middle of the adjustment zone or more towards the back. It helps with handling and stability and is less harsh. Ultimately, a 50 or 51 is ideal for trail riding and just good enough for pavement transfer zones, but it requires that you install a new chain.
With a 48-tooth rear, tighter trails are all handled in first gear. Second is still too tall on the six-speeder. If you switch to a 50 or 51, lugging second gear keeps the bike feeling lighter, more manageable and easier to ride. The clutch ease and feel, along with really good gearbox spacing, allow you to stay in the right power zone for handling trails and fire roads. Overall, big power via the super-quiet exhaust is not the order of the day, but nice power coupled with a killer clutch and a wide range of gears let you do anything you want in the dirt. We did compare it to a buddy’s 2015 EXC that had a Power Quiet Pipes end cap and a TPS adjustment, and there was a pretty dramatic power increase, along with a meatier decibel level.
In the handling world, the 500EXC is just a girthier version of the XC-W. It’s fit with more wiring, switches for lights and turn signals, and a low-hanging rear license plate frame and light. The license plate frame is ugly and looks like it will get torn off when you hurl into your first sand whoop, but it hangs tough. The turn signals out back also appear vulnerable, but in the last two years we’ve only knocked off one of them—not in a fall, but by a leg kicking it off. The new saddle (actually just the cover) still mounts in a single bolt located under the rear fender (a pain when it gets muddy), but the flow onto the tank is nice, and the ergos allow for good mobility.
The suspension is super friendly and very cushy. It’s helped along by the 258 pounds (wet with no fuel), but it craves rocks and hack, chewing on irritating terrain with gusto. This is where the open-bath fork and the PDS rear shock shine. They like rocks, roots and off-road kibble far better than the 4CS fork and linkage rear end found on the XC-Fs. Just look at what Jonny Walker runs on his 300. He’s a full-PDS no-linkage guy, opting for rock and root control over speed whoops and jump faces. The 500 is a bit soft for thicker dudes. Push the 185 mark and you’ll need to pop for .48 (.46 is stock) fork springs and a 7.6 rear (7.3 is stock). The PDS bikes like to run a decent amount of sag. We kept ours around 105mm with a rider aboard. The fork is plush but a shade divey and really doesn’t appreciate heavy shock spring preload. The compression clickers are on the bottom (this is a pain for an off-road guy who likes to fiddle while he rides), but we ended up going to 10 or 12 clicks out. This helped.
The quick-disconnect skid plate is excellent and allows easy access for oil changes. KTM still gets good marks for the quick-open airbox and filter removal system. Just be super careful reinstalling the filter and cage, as it’s easy to misalign, which allows grunge to invade your motor.
The Brembo brakes were strong but actually took a decent amount of time to break in. Once the pads settled in and the glaze wore off, the rotors proved strong.
Good marks for the Metzeler rubber. The front is a pretty decent DOT tire, but does tend to float a bit in hardpack. The rear Six Days unit has short knobs but offers strong traction in everything but deep sand. On the street side, both are spooky and don’t like you dropping in on the pavement like you’re Mark Marquez.
Our front brake-light switch kept popping out. We found that the front lever adjustment lets you set the play, but it always goes back out to the farthest position, unlike the SX-F units that set the distance from the bar only. We like that better.
The triple clamps are cast units designed to offer better feel than the CNC-machined units (SX-F/XC-F), but do give good ergonomic adjustability.
No snivels with the Renthal grips, but, to be honest, we really like the bolt-on ODI grips on the SX-F/XC-F.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Wow, this bike makes us smile. By this time next year it will no doubt have more hours on it than most of our other bikes put together! The KTM 500EXC used to own the dual-sport market hands down. This model has been relatively unchanged since 2012, and some may think it a little long in the tooth—especially with Husky offering a 501 with a rear linkage and 4CS fork, and Beta offering some very strong competition—but the bottom line is that the 500EXC is actually simple, effective, fun and quite superb at playing Lewis and Clark for the adventurer looking to tame some serious off-road terrain.